The following article(s) are entirely the opinion of the author and not based on any official ranking. Only fixed wing, manned and in-atmosphere aircraft are considered, which excludes helicopters, drones, airships and spacecraft.
Welcome to Part Two of our top 20 countdown of the greatest aircraft ever built - in this writer’s opinion. Part One included some excellent aircraft, but the following have edged them out for just being that little bit better, whether it be service length or their amazing abilities. Coming up is one of the greatest dogfighters of the modern era, the first true stealth bomber, and a workhorse of the modern international airline industry. So let’s get started with number 15, one of the greatest fighters ever made.
15: Messerschmitt Bf 109 (Germany)
Type: Single-Engine Fighter
Year of First Flight: 1935
Top Speed: 640 km/h (Mach 0.536)
Max. Take-off Weight: 3,400 kg
Whilst known for its exceptional service record during World War II, the Bf 109 first saw actual service in the Spanish Civil War. From there it went on to be the heart and soul of the Luftwaffe until the dawn of the jet-fighter age. It was designed solely as an intercepting aircraft, but evolved to be an escort for bombers, attack ground targets and also as a reconnaissance plane. What this beautiful machine is most known for however is its incredible number of air-to-air kills against the Allied Powers. The top three aces that flew the 109 had a combined kill-count of 928, many of them Russian.
The Bf 109 was quite revolutionary for its time, often being considered as the most modern and well equipped fighter of the era. Extra effort was taken during design to ensure it was truly a master of the air, with fantastic visibility for the pilots, exceptional manoeuvrability, as well as using light materials to make it fast and capable. Built to compete directly with the Spitfire and Hurricane fighters of the RAF, it was armed specifically for this purpose, and also managed to set a few speed records in the 1930s. When production ended in 1945, a total of 33,984 aircraft had been built, cementing the Bf 109 as an historic fighter of exceptional quality.
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14: Boeing 737 (U.S.A)
Type: Jet Airliner
Year of First Flight: 1967
Top Speed: 876 km/h (Mach 0.82)
Max. Take-off Weight: 85,100 kg
You may wonder why there is a narrow-bodied, average looking airliner from the 1960s in this list at number fourteen. That is until you realise it’s the best-selling jet airliner in history, period. There have been over 8,000 built already, and despite approaching fifty years of service, nearly 4,000 more are on order for production. Furthermore, at any given moment there are about 1,250 Boeing 737s in the air around the world, and one lands or takes off every five seconds.
Sometimes the planes that have the most impact seem to be the least ambitious. It’s not the fastest or the biggest or the most efficient aircraft ever made, but it is built for a purpose and it carries out that purpose flawlessly. Capable of carrying up to 215 passengers, the modern versions have been upgraded with many of the comforts you expect from an airliner in the 21st century. The 737 has also shown considerable usefulness as a dedicated business jet. Service length and reliability make this plane a commendable workhorse of the airways.
13: Eurofighter Typhoon (Multi-national)
Type: Jet Fighter
Year of First Flight: 1994
Top Speed: 2,495 km/h (Mach 2.349)
Max. Take-off Weight: 23,500 kg
Deliberately designed to be unstable in the air, the incredible Eurofighter Typhoon is one of the greatest and most capable dogfighters ever built. It is in a similar situation to the F22-Rapter however, in that air-to-air combat is rare in the modern battlefield and thus the Typhoon has been recently equipped to strike ground targets and perform other tasks. It is used primarily by the UK, Germany, Italy and Spain and sees service in other nations as well. The plane is also one of the most expensive ever designed, with each unit costing upward of £125 million.
First flown in Germany in 1994, a total of 571 aircraft have been ordered since, and the Typhoon has seen some active military service primarily in the Libyan conflict in 2011. Performance wise, it is one of the few operating aircraft capable of supercruise – sustaining supersonic speed without the use of afterburners, outperforms almost every aircraft while operating at these speeds, and is one of the fastest manned aircraft in the world. Combined with elements of stealth and advanced technology, the Eurofighter will remain at the top of the jet fighter world for some time to come.
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12: Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk (U.S.A.)
Type: Stealth Bomber
Year of First Flight: 1981
Top Speed: 993 km/h (Mach 0.92)
Max. Take-off Weight: 23,800 kg
The Nighthawk has one of the most striking shapes of any aircraft in the world, which it owes entirely to stealth. It cannot defend itself in the air and is not particularly fast or agile, but it was extremely successful in combat because it could not be seen. It has served extensively in the Gulf War and the Yugoslav conflicts, during which one bomber was lost to surface to air missiles through little fault of its technology. Sixty four of the planes were built in total and sadly they have been retired as of 2008 – an average service record of only 25 years.
What it lacks in raw firepower and speed, however, it makes up for in the pure fear factor. The F-117 would strike only in the dead of night, silently and without being seen by radar or human eyes. It would drop its payload using outstanding precision and be gone before the dust had settled. This proved an immense success particularly in heavily defended Iraq where it could fly essentially unmolested wherever it desired during the night. Instantly recognisable and undeniably beautiful, the Nighthawk will be remembered for its near perfect execution of its duties.
11: Boeing B-52 Stratofortress (U.S.A.)
Type: Heavy Jet-Powered Bomber
Year of First Flight: 1952
Top Speed: 1,047 km/h (Mach 0.986)
Max. Take-off Weight: 220,000 kg
Designed as a high-altitude strategic bomber during the 1940s, the Boeing B-52 has weathered decades of changing threats and demands, yet has remained in use for more than sixty years, with expectation of another thirty. With an average range of more than 16,000 km and a bomb payload of approximately 35 tons, the B-52 was built to be a nuclear deterrent during the Cold War, but was adapted over time to accommodate a variety of other roles, including reconnaissance, low-altitude bombing, and combat support.
It’s low operating cost and fantastic performance at its duties keep it from being replaced – why fix what isn’t broken? A total of 742 of the B-52s were built, mostly from 1957-1960 and during its history the aircraft shattered various speed and range records, including the longest unrefuelled flight of 20,177 km from Japan to Spain in 1962. Even the name has a legendary tone to it – Stratofortress. It remains a key aircraft in U.S. military operations to this day, and is a stalwart of military power projection.
You can head to Part Three from my signature above.